Culture youth ministry

How does a teenager become an adult?

How does a teenager become an adult?

How does a teenager become an adult?

Is it something intrinsic? Like, does a person become an adult because of the way they think of themselves? Is it when they except responsibility for themselves internally and start making adult-like decisions? Is it putting them on a pathway towards independence? (Vocation, education, relationships)

Or is it extrinsic? Do you cross a threshold physically to become an adult? Does turning 18 years old make you an adult? Does achieving some physical characteristic make you an adult? Does some level of educational achievement or military service make you an adult?

Culture youth ministry

The role of father’s in adolescent sexual education

Existing research preliminarily suggests fathers influence the sexual behavior of their adolescent children; however, more rigorous research examining diverse facets of paternal influence on adolescent sexual behavior is needed. We provide recommendations for primary care providers and public health practitioners to better incorporate fathers into interventions designed to reduce adolescent sexual risk behavior.


“Our research suggests that fathers matter when it comes to their adolescent children’s sexual behavior,” Guilamo-Ramos said. “Moving forward, more attention to the role of fathers in shaping adolescent health and wellbeing is needed. Fathers represent a critical missed opportunity to support the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and represent an additional mechanism to influence teenage sexual behavior.”


I’m intrigued about where this research can end up.

What do you think? Obviously, dads have impact on their adolescent children. But what are ways that you’ve seen dad’s attitudes towards adolescent sex positively or negatively impact his children? 

youth ministry

How do you measure teenage maturity?

News on teenagers consistently conflicts.

  • We are ecstatic about teenage Olympians. No one puts a teenage qualifier on their accomplishments, an Olympic medal is an Olympic medal, it doesn’t count for half a medal because someone is under 18.
  • Our laws define someone as an adult the moment they hit 18 while providing a completely different legal statute for people under 18. Yet neurologists and developmental/behavioral psychologists are proving that every adolescent matures are a different pace depending on a wide variety of variables. (Some inborn, some learned, some internal)

The Love/Hate Relationship with our Nations Teenagers

We have a love/hate relationship with teenagers. We love their accomplishments, we are disgusted when they fail. We are simultaneously infatuated and disgusted by teenage sexuality. Gasp, Justin Bieber has a girlfriend! OMG, I can’t believe she might be pregnant. Oh, I’m going to watch 2 hours of TV talking about it and tweet/Facebook about how disgusted I am… gimme, gimme, gimme more news on teenage sexuality! I’m not exaggerating all that much, am I?

A 16 year old wins a gold medal and she’s on The Today Show. That girl is so mature for her age! (Succeeding at sports makes you mature) Her girlfriend, in the same school and grade gets pregnant? Oh, becoming a mother isn’t an accomplishment… that’s a statistic! She is SO STUPID! We might even make her go to a different school. 

We (rightfully) decide things have to change when a teenager attempts suicide. But funding the school counselor or making sure her parents insurance covered her treatment before it was a suicide attempt? Well, common logic states, that’s really a parental issue.

This continues on after 18, of course. Those who go to college– well, we give them a pass on being adults because they are students. And students can’t be expected to act like adults because they are students. So we allow college students a pass on being mature. In fact, walk around a college campus and you’ll see that “what’s cool” is to act like a 13 year old, fully fulfilled! (Think about it… a “cool college guy” is loud, obnoxious, gets drunk, sleeps around, avoids responsibility, and doesn’t take school all that seriously. There’s nothing mature about that– but college culture celebrates this as a fully embraces college lifestyle.) But someone doesn’t go to college? Well, they better get a job and fend for themselves. They are an adult now…

So how do we measure maturity?

The point of this post is to point out that our society gives many mixed messages about adolescent maturity. Science and common sense says that maturity isn’t an arbitrary age. It depends on a wide variety of factors. One person becomes and adult at 16 while another might not become an adult until 25.

But we have an arbitrary line. Legally, and to a lesser extent culturally, a person is an adult at age 18.

The Supreme Court has now affirmed that not all teenage criminals are the same, some can get life sentences for their crimes while others can’t, the courts are now allowed to look at other factors besides physical age to judge their ability to understand their crimes. This is a big step. 

I suppose I’m wondering when we, those who work with students in schools, churches, and our neighborhoods, will begin to do the same?

Social Action

Teenagers and the law

Yesterday’s ruling by the Supreme Court included some important nuances on the legal understanding of teenagers, their standing in our country, and how the courts view their decision-making abilities.

Whether you work with teenagers or have one at home– I’ve done my best to synthesize this nuance in both the argument and the opinion of the court. I’m highlighting in red negative words about teenagers abilities, highlighting in blue words which recognize teenage capabilities. That way you can see the dance the courts are making visually.

The argument made to the Supreme Court

To start with the first set of cases: Roper and Graham establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained, “they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.” Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17). Those cases relied on three significant gaps between juveniles and adults. First, children have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U. S., at 569. Second, children “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,”including from their family and peers; they have limited“contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. And third, a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievable depravity.” Id., at 570. 

Our decisions rested not only on common sense—on what “any parent knows”—but on science and social science as well. Id., at 569. In Roper, we cited studies showing that “‘[o]nly a relatively small proportion of adolescents’” who engage in illegal activity “‘develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.’” Id., at 570 (quoting Steinberg & Scott, Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1014 (2003)). And in Graham, we noted that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds”—for example, in “parts of the brain involved in behavior control.” 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17).5 We reasoned that those findings—of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences—both lessened a child’s “moral culpability” and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his “‘deficiencies will be reformed.’” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 18) (quoting Roper, 543 U. S., at 570). 

Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive at- tributes of youth diminish the penological justificationsfor imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes. Because “‘[t]he heart of the retribution rationale’” relates to an offender’s blame worthiness, “‘the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult.’” Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 20–21) (quoting Tison v. Arizona, 481 U. S. 137, 149 (1987); Roper, 543 U. S., at 571). Nor can deterrence do the work in this context, because “‘the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults’”—their immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity—make them less likely to consider potential punishment. Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 21) (quoting Roper, 543 U. S., at 571). Similarly, incapacitation could not support the life-without-parole sentence in Graham: Deciding that a “juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society” would require “mak[ing] a judgment that [he] is incorrigible”—but “‘incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.’” (pages 8-10)

The courts ruling

Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime inprison. (page 17)


This is from the Supreme Courts ruling on Miller vs. Alabama, a challenge to mandatory life sentences to juvenile murderers. In other words, judges can now take into account the circumstances of the individuals background, their mental ability to understand the crime, their ability to discontinue involvement in the crime, and family life.

Obviously, I think this is good news for teenagers in general because the courts indicate that adults (and our laws) should not apply to teenagers in the same way, regardless of age.

Why this matters

  1. GOOD The Supreme Court’s ruling indicates that maturity and cognitive ability to grasp the seriousness of risk is not fixed by age. All 17 year olds are not the same, all 14 year olds are not the same.
  2. GOOD The Supreme Court removes state laws mandatory sentencing for juvenile offenders, even in states where minors are tried as adults for serious felonies. This doesn’t say they can’t get life sentences but it does say that the courts are allowed to to examine the maturity level and family circumstances of individual offenders.
  3. GOOD While nuanced, the language of the majority opinion affirms the capabilities of teenagers. Justice Kagan makes a distinction between a juvenile raised in a stable home with one raised in a chaotic home. She also affirms that the mental capacity to understand cause and effect varies widely between a 14 year old and 17 year old. Did they have the ability to walk away before a crime was committed? Or were they able to grasp the risk to themselves prior to committing a crime? Those are questions of capability.
  4. GOOD The Supreme Court affirms that since a juvenile cannot legally defend themselves in the same way, because of their constitutional definition as a child, that it’s unfair to use the same sentencing guidelines as an adult defendant. That acknowledges the justice gap as its unfair to give someone a life sentence when they can’t properly defend themselves.

What else do you see in the courts ruling yesterday that I’m missing?

Photo credit: Charles Pence via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Good News youth ministry

Is anybody out there?

Yesterday Walt Mueller posted this video on his blog, it’s a lot to chew on. I hadn’t seen it but I’m glad I have. As youth workers, it’s both heart-breaking and knowledge we share that too many teenagers feel this way.

My reflections

  • It looked like a mature town… so lots and lots of churches. The church wasn’t part of the question of the video nor the answer.
  • What would be Good News to the characters in the video?
  • What if students in my neighborhood saw me as someone who could help in that situation?

What are your thoughts? 


To keep them young

Jackson is 8 months old. He crawls around on the floor. He pulls himself up on things to stand up. He coos, squeals, grunts, and makes endless raspberries. He’s the perfect size for Megan (10) and Paul (8) to pick up and play with. He loves to cuddle with mom and dad.

Eight months is one of those ages you wish your kids could just freeze and stay… forever.

This is the tension we live in as parents, isn’t it? We want them to slow down so we can enjoy each stage of development.

But they are in a hurry to grow up

Jackson wants to use real words to tells us exactly what he wants. He wants to not just stand up, but walk. He wants to run with his siblings. He wants to eat what we eat.

He wants to get big and we want to keep him small. 

It’s cute when they are babies. Certainly understandable and easy to justify.

But this tug to keep them young isn’t always good for them

The other day I hung out with Ryan McRae, a resident director at CSU San Marcos. He sees this same phenomenon every day with 18, 19, 20 year olds whose parents have done their best to keep their children young. Many of them are ill-equipped to live on their own. They lack basic judgment skills. Lots of them can’t even cook for themselves or do their own laundry.

Young adults who can’t take care of themselves. They can’t resolve conflict among themselves. He has to tell the parents to leave their adult-aged children alone.

I’m not a psychologist… but when I hear these things my mind wonders, “Are these young adults developmentally delayed?” Yes.

It’s cute to keep a baby young. But its not helpful to them beyond toddlerhood.

As parents we want to hold on to that cute baby who crawls around on the floor and coos. But, to be a good parent, we need to own our role in raising our children to become responsible, respectable adults. The goal of your parenting can not be to hold onto the past. It has to be to prepare your kids for the future.

Let’s explore this more. Join me in Atlanta for the Extended Adolescence Symposium on November 21st.

Church Leadership

Extended adolescence & you

Adolescence cannot last from 11 years old to 29 years old. Our society will crumble economically & socially under the pressure. 

I think most people understand that intuitively. They reflect on their teenage years and their early twenties as a time of coming of age.

But times have changed. Most sociologists believe adolescence stretches from the onset of puberty (11-12 years old) until the late 20s. In other words, the adolescence you and I knew is now 8-10 years LONGER than when we went through it just 20 years ago.

When I think of people in their 20s I think of two distinct subsets.

  1. Those who move out and declare independence.
  2. Those who don’t.

1. Declaration of Independence

For some, moving out and declaring personal independence happens after high school when they join the military. Even though I’ve heard NCOs refer to their platoons as “their kids” certainly they are not dependent on their parents any more. They are earning their own way in the world, they provide their own housing, and they are trained in complex adults tasks. A 20 year old Army Specialist repairing a Blackhawk helicopter on a base in Germany is an adult role.

For others, they go to college and pay their own way and handle all of the responsibilities of being a college student on their own. They reject the childish party life and are serious about their education from day 1. The young woman who watched our kids this summer was this way. She worked multiple jobs all summer to bridge the gap between student loans, grants, and her need. And she takes her studies seriously because she needs this degree to take her and her family a step closer to the American dream.

Still others, high school ends with a thud and they enter young adulthood when their parents either kick them out or they move out. They discover adult responsibilities when they realize that they have to work or starve. Or they have to work or become homeless.

2. Declaration of Co-Dependency

I’m no psychologist. But over the past 10 years I’ve encountered dozens of parents whom exhibit co-dependent tendencies on their adult-aged children. They track their progress at school. They call them daily. They financially support so their college students don’t work. They either directly or indirectly tell their adult-aged children that they can always live at home, they will never have to support themselves. So they don’t. They lightly attend college and learn almost nothing. They party like Paris Hilton. They don’t even do their own laundry.

Essentially, they are pets. They know it. And love it. They know their parents are co-dependent on them and they take full advantage.

Most of these co-dependent parents have one thing in common: Disposable income. Their adult-aged children hang around with nearly no responsibility… because their parents can afford for them to do so. 


  • What role does responsibility play in extended adolescence?
  • If you serve in ministry, how do you help parents who exhibit co-dependent tendencies?
  • Do you agree with my premise that extended adolescence is tied to household economics?
Want to learn more about this topic? Want to wrestle with this and what it has to do with adolescent faith formation? Join me at the Extended Adolescence Symposium on November 21st in Atlanta, Georgia.


youth ministry

Behind the Veil of Calling

Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig, - via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I’m not a psychologist. Nor am I a sociologist. But I know my profession pretty well. And I know a ton of people in my profession.

Why do we do what we do?

It’s an important question. In many ways it is the only question that our students want to know the answer to.

My intuition tells me that most of us have been trained that the right answer is, “I’m called to this. I couldn’t do anything else because it is who I am more than what I do.

But behind that veil of the right answer– we find deeper, less correct, more driving motivations.

  • We want to see teenagers involved in the church.
  • We want them to steer clear of sex and drugs.
  • We want to help parents navigate the stormy waters of early & middle adolescence.
  • We want students to avoid the mess we got in; we want students to be the shining example we were in high school
  • We want to work at a church and this was the open door.
  • We want to be important in the lives of teenagers, we want to make a difference.
  • On and on…

Not all motivations are equal in nobility. While most motivations seem pure not all are with merit. And some might actually be contributing to a new problem more than solving the problem youth ministry was created to solve.

What are some examples of pure motivations which lead to ignoble motivations? If you work in a church or parachurch doing youth ministry– What are your points of contention with donors/supports/parrishners motivated to support your ministry with motivations that could be less than helpful?

parenting youth ministry

The Big Picture of Parenting

Original Cartoon published in Wall Street Journal (July 2008)

Thinking about this– I know I have two huge handicaps.

  1. I didn’t grow up under “ideal circumstances” but I still turned out just fine.
  2. My own kids are only ten, almost eight, and five months.

I’m not a parenting expert by any means. In fact, because I didn’t grow up with a strong relationship with my own dad (or any male whom I’d label a role model) I’m still learning how to dad.

While I might not be there yet as a parent, and while I might not have the best native skills as a dad, I still have the power of observation.

Here’s what I know from doing youth ministry and ministering to adolescents and their parents for my entire adult life: Parents who focus on the Big Picture have a higher success rate than parents who get lost in the daily battles.

They win the battle but lose the war.

What do I mean?

Parents who are highly controlling, who don’t let their adolescent children experiment and find themselves in middle and high school, tend to see their children go wild in their 20s. The mistake seems to be that they focused on managing behaviors instead of trying to parent a teenager trying to figure out who they are. (The primary task of adolescent development.)

So they freak when their 14 year old makes out with a girl at a dance. Or put them on lockdown when they try alcohol at a party at 12. Or force them to attend a church camp when they are 15 “to fix that nasty attitude.As if Repunzel-ing them were going to work.

Sidenote: Isn’t the plot of every Disney movie a struggle to find ones self against the wishes of controlling parents? Ever wondered why those stories connect so strongly with adolescents? It’s powerful to them because it’s their life! 

What’s the Big Picture?

I like to look at my children with a long lens. What are the types of things I’d like them to be as adults? And then I work backwards.

  • I want them to be strong, independent thinkers. Not yes men. –> Arguing about things will be normal. Questions like “Why?”, my authority, and fairness are annoying, but fostering that.
  • I want them to enjoy simplicity. Reject the desire of plenty for the joys of saying no. –> While we live a pretty simple life, we allow them to experience luxuries. They want things, earn them, get them. In order to reject that stuff they’ll need to discover for themselves that there is no happiness in things.
  • I want them to have happy, healthy, and simple adult relationships. –> That means I can’t freak out about everything. They are going to like who they want to like. And they may make some mistakes along the way. But I don’t want them carrying around a daddy-phobia when they think about a partner. Is dad going to approve of this person? I want them to be happy. To have a healthy marriage. And to have simple adult relationships.
  • I want them to find pleasure in what they do. –> That means we want our kids to pursue their dreams for them, not ours. Not surprisingly, my kids are into nerdy things. (I mean, I’m kind of a nerd, right?) We’ve been open to letting the kids explore what they’re into. We exposed them to soccer early, I loved soccer growing up. But they hated it. So we didn’t force them to love it for us. Well beyond childhood we want to rally behind what they want to do vocationally. Sure, I have dreams for them. But their dreams for themselves are so much cooler than my dreams for them.
What’s the Big Picture for Your Kids? Can you articulate it? And do you allow your Big Picture to overrule your cultural desires to over-parent?
youth ministry

4 Ways We Hold High School Students Back

Photo by Megan Ann via Flickr (Creative Commons)

In reading Robert Epstein’s book, Teen 2.0, the one thing that fundamentally shifted my thinking is that adults lament about childish behavior while simultaneously funding and celebrating it.

Politely, Epstein says we have infantalized our youth. Maybe we need to take it a step further? We treat our young like pets.

4 Quick Examples to Illustrate that Point

  1. We spend bagillions of dollars on the Rule of Law and Regulation of Teenagers: In the last 40 years we have created an immense amount of laws aimed at regulating behavior of those under 18. We force them to go to school. We regulate where they can go when school is out. We regulate when they can be out. We tell them what they can wear. Who they can be with. What they can ingest or not ingest. Epstein did a study comparing inmates to high school students and found that men in prison have more freedoms. But magically, despite 18 years old not being a significant number in physical or emotional development, we have decided that those over 18 can do whatever they want.
  2. We Celebrate Low Expectations: We have removed adult expectations from high school students. They can’t be bothered to even get out of bed in the summer, right? Forget the fact that physically high school students are near the pinnacle of their strength and can outwork their parents. Forget the fact that the adolescent brain is mostly ready to tackle adulthood, ever seen what happens when a teenage son asks his mom to help him with his physics homework? And forget the fact that teenagers can do amazing things. (Like say, discover a cancer treatment for a high school science fair) Instead of ramping up expectations for them, in our wealth, we remove expectations of productivity. We even limit the ability to have expectations of our high school students. Instead, we slyly whine about our teenage children at home and what they won’t do. Or a post-college student who has moved home but can’t find the right job.
  3. We have an unlimited spending appetite for teenage sexuality: Think of how many billions of dollars are spent annually preventing teen pregnancy? BILLIONS! But not nearly as many billions as are spent celebrating adolescent sex in advertising, television, movies, etc. Our culture has an obsession with adolescent sexuality. It’s taboo. And that taboo drives our spending on both prevention and celebration. Since we’ve labeled high school students as children, this forces a label that their sexual activities as irresponsible. Meanwhile everything in pop culture celebrates adolescent virility and fertility. (Television, music, news media, movies, etc.) Physically, the average 16 year old is completely ready for sex. But if that 16 year old wants to have a serious, long-term relationship? Oh heck no! We need to prevent it. We argue that they aren’t emotionally ready for a sexual relationship. (Hypocritically, we were but deny that even happened. And our great-grandparents married at 16 and had our grandparents at 19. Today’s teen pregnancy tragedy was yesterday’s normal sexual expectation.) Meanwhile, our Christian constructions argue for waiting until marriage… something which we’ve delayed almost 10 years on average in just 100 years! The average first marriage for a woman in the U.S. is now 26.5 years old.
  4. We Spend a Lot Keeping Teenagers Out of the Workplace: Up until the Great Depression most adolescents didn’t finish high school and entered the trades, farming, or a factory to work full-time. For the most part that is now illegal. We’ve regulated the types of and length of employment adolescents can participate in. We’ve created a false expectation that every student should go to college. (A notion our economy cannot support.) But we’ve created a multi-trillion dollar industry called compulsory high school we can’t bear to let go of or adjust in all of its disfunction. Instead, we now expect that students won’t go to work, earn money for their families, or otherwise contribute because they will perpetually get education for things they don’t want to study. We expect them to consume. And we’ve created industries around entertaining them so they have something to do while not working or not learning. (Sports, video games, summer school, camps, etc.)

Is it no wonder why this period of adolescence has extended from 4-5 years in the 1940s to 13-14 years today? 

Maybe it is time we reverse this trend? Maybe we need to start by getting out of the way and allowing adolescents to become adults?